River Phoenix’s short life contained all the clichés of a Hollywood movie. His way out of a poverty-stricken youth – part of which was spent involved with the infamous (and infamously perverse) Children of God cult – came when he was spotted busking on the street with his siblings by a talent agent. TV commercials came, and movies followed – even earning him an Oscar nomination at the age of 18. But in a tragic case of the American Dream cut short, Phoenix died of a drug overdose at the age of 23, outside Johnny Depp’s LA club The Viper Room. The resulting media storm soon overshadowed the actor’s life and humanitarian efforts, but he is now regarded as a cult figure – something of a 90s James Dean – and beloved for his roles in films such as Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho. On what would have been his 44th birthday, we look back at his most iconic moments. For a more complete history, check out this article.
STAND BY ME (1986)
In this coming of age classic set in 1959, four outcast friends journey out in search of the dead body of a peer, who has reportedly been hit by a train. In the fifties uniform of a white T-shirt and jeans, a young Phoenix gave an impressive performance as Chris Chambers, painfully poised between boyhood and maturity and struggling to deal with his 'wrong side of the tracks' reputation.
Stand by Me was featured in our countdown of the top ten films for the American summer. Read the full list.
RUNNING ON EMPTY (1988)
In a film that saw Phoenix become one of the youngest Oscar nominees for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (and also get a Golden Globe nod), he played the son of two Vietnam war protesters on the run from the FBI, starring alongside long-term girlfriend Martha Plimpton. In the film, he's the perfect vision of late-80s all American youth – jeans, a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off and of course, his signature head of hair.
YOUNG INDIANA JONES
Having played Harrison Ford’s son in The Mosquito Coast (1986), Ford put forward Phoenix for the role of the young Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Dressed in a boy scout uniform, Phoenix’s scenes show how Jones gets his start as a crime fighting archaeologist – and gets his fear of snakes, too. See behind the scenes footage and director George Lucas talk about casting Phoenix below:
RIVER THE MUSICIAN
Besides being an accomplished actor, Phoenix also had musicial aspirations. He played in a band called Aleka's Attic with his sister Rain, who were signed to Island Records under the condition that they release an album and become a marketable band in two years. Due to River's filming schedule, this was not fulfilled, and the contract was terminated, with R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe later buying the rights to their music. With longer hair and graphic T-shirts making up his signiture look, by the early 90s Phoenix was coming to resemble another famous tragic icon of the decade. On the night of his death, he had been due to perform on stage at The Viper Room with friend (and member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) Flea.
ROCK AGAINST FUR
Phoenix’s entire family became vegans when living in Venezuela as missionaries, and he remained passionate about animal ethics (“I wouldn't eat a hamburger for 40,000 dollars”), the environment and other humanitarian causes throughout his life. In 1989 he attended Peta’s Rock Against Fur benefit with Martha Plimpton, and performed with his band decked out in double plaid, cords and wire framed glasses.
1989 ACADEMY AWARDS
Up for Running on Empty, in 1989 Phoenix attended his first (and only) Academy Awards ceremony, hand in hand with Martha Plimpton – to the tabloids' delight. Although he looked the part in his tux, he was clearly not comfortable in the spotlight. "The hype? No, that really means nothing to me. It's more the history of the award that makes it special," he tells a reporter in the video below.
I LOVE YOU TO DEATH (1990)
In 1990, Phoenix took a role in a dark comedy about attempted murder, and one man's Rasputin-like ability to cheat assasination. Based on a true story, the film introduced Phoenix to Keanu Reeves (who played a stoner would-be hit man), with whom he would soon work again. When he wasn't sporting a fetching pizzeria uniform, in the film Phoenix could be seen looking something like a white, wannabe Jimi Hendrix.
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)
1991 saw Phoenix undertake a starring role alongside Keanu Reeves in Gus Van Sant’s New Queer Cinema classic My Own Private Idaho. Phoenix played Mike, a narcoleptic gay street hustler, a role the director had assumed he would turn down. In one scene he reclines against a cross on the cover of a homoerotic magazine (above), whist another sees him scrubbing the house of an OCD client in a little Dutch boy outfit. See the clip below:
INTERVIEW MAGAZINE BY BRUCE WEBER
In this iconic shoot for the November 1991 issue of Interview magazine, photographer Bruce Weber captured Phoenix and Reeves in a series of images that display the closeness of their relationship – with Phoenix donning an impressive floral shirt. In the accompanying interview, they spoke of the moment they agreed to appear in Van Sant’s film – driving down Santa Monica Boulevard. “We shook hands. That was it.” Phoenix said.
Playing a marine soon to be shipped out to Vietnam and tasked with finding the ugliest possible girl to bring to a party – or dogfight – that evening (yes, really), Phoenix is almost unrecognisable in this role, a buzzcut replacing his long blonde hair. Whilst it was not a box office success, it was well-received by critics, and adapted for the stage in 2012.
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